theGame time: 1 p.m. ET, Aug. 28, 2021
Venue: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, IL
Where to watch: FOX
Opening Odds at USA Sportsbooks
DraftKings: Nebraska -7, Illinois +7
BetMGM: Nebraska -7, Illinois +7
FanDuel: Nebraska -6.5, Illinois +6.5
2020 season record
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Nebraska - Illinois preview and analysis
Nov. 21, 2020: Illinois won 41-23
There’s something to be said about believing in a quarterback so much that he’s your mainstay for four seasons.
Entering his fourth college season and still a junior, Adrian Martinez is the guy once again for head coach Scott Frost to lead the Nebraska Cornhuskers back to a bowl game for the first time since 2016.
It’s been a disappointing downward trend for Nebraska since Frost took over four years ago, and that’s why Saturday’s season opener against the Illinois Fighting Illini is so critical. The Huskers and Illini are the first national TV broadcast of the new college football season, and eyes will be on Nebraska and how they rebound from a 3-5 shortened season.
"Everything's on the line in Week 1, and we couldn't be more pumped about it," Martinez said.
The junior quarterback may not be exaggerating, given Nebraska’s status in the Big Ten and how important it is for that program to start putting together a winning culture.
It’s been six years since Nebraska went to a bowl game, seven since it won a bowl game, and 20 years since it last went to the Rose Bowl. There’s a lot more than everything on the line; jobs could be at stake if Foster doesn’t lead his group back to some sort of prominence.
That lies on the arm, and legs, of Martinez. Last year’s leading passer and rusher returns for another season, but there’s reason to feel optimistic. Martinez had the best passing season of his college career in the shortened 2020 season, completing 71.5 percent of his passes on seven yards per attempt. He also ran for 521 yards and seven touchdowns; in a normal college season, he would’ve shattered his career bests on that front.
Martinez will have to figure out who his new No. 1 receiver is. Last year’s leader in all-purpose yards, Wan’Dale Robinson, transferred to his home state of Kentucky after two years with Nebraska. That distinction may come down to Omar Manning or Samori Toure. Tight end Austin Allen, a 6-foot-9 behemoth that can catch anything, is someone else to keep an eye on.
But as is the case for every year, the curious case of the Fighting Illini makes any season compelling in Champaign. After the Lovie Smith Era came to a crashing halt after one bowl appearance in five seasons, the onus is now on Bret Bielema to bring Illinois to some prominence in the Big Ten.
The Illini went through a revolving door of quarterbacks last season in an attempt to find something that stuck. While it worked enough to get two wins last year -- including an 18-point victory against Nebraska -- Illinois still found itself going 2-6. Brandon Peters will start under center in Week 1, but the Illini head coach knows the task to winning Saturday is stopping Nebraska’s quarterback.
“Obviously Martinez is a very gifted player, very creative,” Bielema said. “Going back over the last couple of years, he’s a player that’s been recognized as a captain — he’s the only three-time captain in Nebraska history, think about that. Regardless of their record, their history, the last three years he’s been a guy that’s been a mainstay for them.”
The Illini will not have wide receiver Marquez Beason for the start of the season. The former cornerback switched to wideout during spring practices. His potential to be a star on the outside is critical, but it’s an open competition for Illinois and who can be relied upon to catch the ball from Peters.
If Peters is the mainstay signal-caller for the Illini, he has a tough task ahead of him in turning around this offense. Illinois averaged 20.1 points per game last season, good for 112th in the country. For the record, 128 teams play Division I football. Nebraska’s offense wasn’t any better in scoring 23.1 points per contest with most of that production coming on the ground; the Huskers’ rushing attack generated 1.9 of their 2.5 touchdowns they averaged per game on offense.
Both defenses were poor a season ago, but Nebraska’s was slightly better giving up 29.4 points, while Illinois was at 34.9. That didn’t seem to matter all that much when Illinois put up 41 points in Lincoln a year ago. It’s bound to be a high-scoring affair no matter how you slice it.
Nebraska’s gameplan has been the same for five years. Illinois may actually change things up given what Bielema can do. Illini plus the points seems like a safe bet, especially at home. Illinois wins 37-27
Nebraska is 6-2 against Illinois in the last eight, but Illinois has won two of the last three at Champaign.
Four of the last eight meetings have gone over.
Nebraska is 0-9 against the spread in the last three years when it allows 28 points or more.
Illinois is 1-12 straight up in the last three years when they allow 28 points or more.
Illinois: WR Marquez Beason (out)
Players to watch
Nebraska: Linebacker JoJo Domann can be a difference maker for the Nebraska defense. He led the Huskers with 58 tackles in 2020, six of them for loss. Another year of experience could help him develop in the turnover game.
Illinois: Last year’s leading rusher Chase Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his first full year as a starter. He’s expected to have a big year as the lead tailback for Illinois.
Returning statistical leaders from 2020
Passing: Adrian Martinez -- 1,055 yards, 4 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: Adrian Martinez -- 521 yards, 7 TD
Receiving: Austin Allen -- 236 yards, 1 TD
Defense: JoJo Domann -- 58 tackles
Passing: Brandon Peters -- 429 yards, 3 TD
Rushing: Chase Brown -- 540 yards, 7 TD
Receiving: Brian Hightower -- 209 yards, 3 TD
Defense: Owen Carney Jr -- 5 sacks
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